Obedience: the essential ingredient in our social contract, without which the civilized world would devolve into anarchy. We’ve come to accept it as the natural condition by which our lives are governed, rarely questioning whether the instructions we receive are tethered to the ethics and morality espoused by our society or if they come from someplace darker.  

In 1961, Yale psychologist Stanly Milgram, devised an experiment to explain the psychology of genocide and human atrocities. More specifically, he attempted to answer the question of whether acts of great cruelty, such as those perpetrated in the Holocaust, were done merely in obedience to authority. For example, were the Nazi’s and German people just following orders?  

In the Milgram experiment, there were three participants in each session: a teacher, a learner, and the overseer who guided the session. The learner was placed in a separate room from the teacher and overseer, though the two rooms were connected for audio communication. Further, the learner was wired with electrodes capable of delivering extremely painful jolts of electricity. The teacher was tasked with giving the learner word pairs to be memorized, the catch being that if the learner failed to memorize the word pairs, the teacher was required to administer the electric shock by turning a dial. The dial ranged from 0 to 450 volts, or mild to excruciating. The premise of this arrangement was to see if the threat of pain encouraged the subject’s performance in the tests.  

In actuality, there was only one subject per session, the teacher. Beforehand, both “subjects” chose a scrap of paper from a cup to assign their positions and both scraps said “teacher.” The second subject was an actor who would always insist that their paper said learner. The shock generator was demonstrated, delivering shocks to both the teacher and learner to establish its base settings, then the learner was strapped in and the teacher taken to their station. 

During the course of the experiment, the actor would intentionally make errors to incur frequent and increasingly painful shocks, progressively howling in pain and begging to stop. The overseer would instruct the teacher to proceed regardless of how desperate the learner’s pleas. Fortunately, the pain knob was not connected to a shock generator, rather to a tape recorder that played zapping noises and cued the actor. 

Milgram discovered that more than half, 26 of 40 subjects, took the experiment to its final 450-volt zap, while all of them went at least to 300 in spite of the actor’s anguished insistence that they stop. While the teachers did take the experiment into clearly painful and potentially dangerous levels, most of them did so under great personal stress and anxiety. Though clearly uncomfortable with it, they continued, largely in obedience to a perceived authority.  

In 1966, psychiatrist Charles Hofling took a page from Milgram’s work and conducted a field experiment, this time testing the nurse-physician dynamic. In Hofling’s experiment, a fake drug called Astroten was placed in the drug cabinet. Hoffling then had a fictitious “Dr. Smith” call the nursing station and order that 20mg of Astroten be administered to a patient, insisting that he would complete the necessary paperwork when he arrived at the hospital.  

There were a number of things wrong with this request. To start, Astroten was not on the patient’s approved drug list. Additionally, the fake bottle very clearly stated that the maximum daily does for Astroten was 10mg, thus a 20mg dose would potentially be fatal. Finally, hospital protocol dictated that nurses only follow instructions from known physicians and with the proper prescriptions, not from some unknown doctor over the phone.  

Hofling’s results were disturbing. Of the 22 nurses tested, 21 of them attempted to administer the drug with the potentially lethal dosage. Fortunately, they were all stopped at the patient’s door before they could finish.  

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo and his research team at Stanford, conducted the now famous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). Similar to Milgram and Hofling, this experiment endeavored to explore the dynamic of prisoners and guards, specifically when the roles were assigned randomly to seemingly well-adjusted people. 

24 male subjects were chosen from a pool of applicants generated from a newspaper ad. Among the selection criteria were no previous criminal record, no health issues, and no obvious psychological issues. Half of them were assigned the role of guard, the other half were to be the prisoners. Subjects were paid $15 a day for the two-week-long experiment.  

On the first day of the experiment, the prisoners were arrested in their homes by actual police officers, taken to a real police station, processed, then taken to the fabricated facility at Stanford where they were incarcerated. This set an ominous tone for the ethics and legality of the experiment. Several of the participants later said they regretted not filing charges for false arrest.  

Things escalated quickly with the guard’s behavior becoming increasingly abusive. On the second day, a staged revolt by the prisoners was dealt with harshly by the guards who sprayed the prisoners with fire extinguishers, locked the instigators in “the hole,” and psychologically tormented them with sleep deprivation and a variety of other tactics. The first “inmate” cracked after two days, demanding to be let out of the experiment and, by day six, things had gotten so bad that Zimbardo was forced to shut the project down.  

The SPE is often criticized, citing demand bias in the guard population, specifically that guards were being coached to mistreat the prisoners as opposed to naturally developing their cruel behavior. However, an argument can be made that coaching is a significant factor in the obedience of cruelty.  

In the early 1990s, the phenomenon of obedience was exploited once again in a bizarre and cruel streak of pranks known as the Strip Search Phone Call Scam that primarily victimized fast food workers in small rural towns. The scam involved an unknown caller who would dial up the restaurant claiming to be a police officer, DEA agent, or some other law enforcement officer. They would then proceed to tell the manager that one of their employee’s (sometimes a customer) was wanted by their agency. They would provide an accurate description and information about the target that would be known by the manager to establish credibility. Typically, the fake officer would then instruct the manager to take the individual into the office and make them strip down and perform a body cavity search, ostensibly for drugs or stolen merchandise. Though on some occasions, the demands went far beyond this.  

The most notable occurrence of this scam occurred in 2004, in Mount Washington, Kentucky. A female McDonald’s worker was held for over three and a half hours against her will while multiple managers, employees, and even the manager’s fiancé took instructions from a fake police officer. It seems unbelievable that someone would hold an employee against their will, strip them of their clothes, violate them, and sexually assault them, all by the urging of someone claiming to be a police officer over the phone, yet that is precisely what happened. Though the victim did receive a six-million-dollar settlement, the humiliation and psychological trauma will endure for a lifetime. 

When observed out of context, obedience seems like a spell, a secret code, or a contract with no logical binding. Why does our own intelligence and morality seem to be anesthetized by authority? Is it that the comfort and stability of society have forced us into this covenant? Perhaps. Though the obedience we pay to ensure this order is the same force that will be used to undo it.